Why Bother Debating?

Two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a group of post-university students from the U.S. and Canada who are contemplating aliyah. The topic was “State and Religion in Israel,” and the panel included an activist from the Reform movement and a Modern Orthodox educator.

I returned home after two and a half hours completely drenched, wondering why I had gone and whether anything positive could possibly come from such a debate.

I doubt most readers can even imagine the chasm between traditionally Orthodox and secular North American Jews. We barely have a common language or any shared assumptions. For us, “Who is a Jew” is determined by very specific halachic criteria, and the question of “What are the obligations of a Jew?” can only be answered by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah.

For them, a Jew is anyone with Jewish blood who “feels Jewish,” and the concept of obligations is foreign. Instead they prefer such vagaries as “raising a Jewish family” or “living Jewishly,” defined by each individual Jew for him or herself. For reasons that I will not detail, I have never felt so intensely the truth of the Chazon Ish’s pithy line, “What they call a great love story is for us an issur kareis [a prohibition deserving of spiritual excision],” as during that panel discussion.

I knew from ample past experience on such panels that I would be on the defensive from the very start. The main topics are almost guaranteed to be army service and the economic dependence of the chareidi community. And indeed, in the moderator’s introduction, she mentioned that the participants had already heard a lot on these topics from previous speakers.

In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises — l’taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity. And the fact that most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service, only sharpens the question.

To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship. It is an introduction for which most of that audience did not possess a frame of reference.

So if the chances of winning the debate or convincing any large number of participants are minimal, why would I put myself through the unpleasantness? The least important reason for participating is the chance to reframe some of the issues to which they have already been exposed, and thereby mitigate the animosity. Just putting a human face on the chareidi community may have some purpose, though for that I would have sent someone younger and better-looking.

More importantly, any such forum provides an opportunity to present ideas that most of these young Jews have never heard. Torah min HaShamayim, the view that the pipelines of Divine blessing to the world are either opened or closed according to our actions and Torah learning, the immutability of Torah and that rabbis are not free to do whatever they want — these were new concepts to most participants. I wanted them to understand that Judaism is not whatever any Jew wants it to be, but based on the Torah, Hashem’s Word.

To make the abstract real for them, I described why someone coming from a background not so different from theirs might leave that world, at the pinnacle of success, to join the chareidi world. What could possibly motivate a young Jew, like them, to make such a leap? Of course, this did not have much to do with our given topic, and my Reform opponent complained, justly: “We are supposed to be discussing ‘state and religion’ and he keeps talking about ‘Hashem and Torah.’”

At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux, and one hopes to find the right words to hit them between the eyes.

Many of those young Jews — relatively committed by North American standards — have never even been in synagogue on Shavuos, if they have ever heard of the holiday at all. If all I did was to give them some vision of Maamad Har Sinai as the central event in human history, it will have been worth it.

Did I succeed? It’s always hard to know. But when I arrived home, there was a message from one of the participants asking whether he could come for a Shabbos. Hopefully, he’ll bring others.

From an article in Mishpacha, June 18.

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22 comments to Why Bother Debating?

  • joel rich

    In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises — l’taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity. And the fact that most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service, only sharpens the question.

    To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship.

    —————————————
    Much to say but let me ask , what if all the non-chareidim left eretz yisrael (chas vshalom), how would a chareidi leadership deal with these issues? (and at what point of population percentage would their thinking change?)

    Also as a point of information, there are those who understand the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship but still question why most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service.(or for that matter in almost any form of national service that the rest of the nation would agree to in resource allocation terms)

    KT

  • Dr. E

    It is unfortunate that the “common language” has been lost among many of our brethren.

    With regard to the Chareidi position on Army Service and economic dependence, you are indeed correct that it is a “tough sell”. That is because it is quite indefensible, not only to those far from Torah, but even those who are quite immersed in it, albeit with a different worldview. Not only do those two trends have no source in our Mesorah, but traditional sources and Jewish History are actually contrary evidence to both. Now that we are studying the tractates of Kodshim, the fact that people needed to be able to afford Karbanos, as necessary, would lead one to believe that personal financial independence was likely a value. And this is corroborated by Chazal. In terms of army service, the Torah’s exemptions are quite specific and limited. The contemporary facts-on-the-ground in Israel are that there are fine Bnei Torah who are in high tech, medicine, law, etc., contribute the economic viability of the country, and do not seek handouts (certainly not with the audacity to try to take and then dictate their own terms.) And there are those in the Army who are passionate about Torah and Yireas Shamayim and can out-learn/out-shteig many in the Chareidi Yeshiva System (even many of those who are on the rosters who actually do report to the Beis Medrish regularly). Even Chareidim, who are intellectually honest (including readers of Cross-Currents), understand that the isolation from the rest of society in these two areas was really only meant for about 5% of the population, rather than 95%. Whether to the most secular Israeli putting his life on the line to the more “open” Chareidim, claims that Chareidim still hold the monopoly of Mesiras Nefesh as justifications for these realities are a nonstarter- even if the Beis Medrish no-shows (or those who are there, only in body) and dumpster-burners could be removed from the equation.

    We can probably all agree on the fact that Hashem relates to the world and Torah learning has an effect on that relationship. The question is just whether that can be more effectively argued to the uninitiated by the high-tech entrepreneur who learns 4 hours a day while doing his Milluim on the Gaza Border–or by a Chareidi Yungerman who has been in Kollel for 15 years.

  • yitznewton

    “In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises — l’taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity.”

    From ANY point of view there clearly exists inequity. The question is whether this is defensible.

  • Steve Brizel

    Hopefully, one of the participants will realize that the Taam of Shabbos outweighs any formal arguments raised in a debate.

  • lacosta

    >>From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity

    — actually, not only from the secular point of view. i would venture to guess, that you would be hard pressed to find other frum jews [RWMO, LWMO,cenrist, DL, YU ,YI,etc] who justify the haredi israeli attitude and/or ideology vis a vis State, army, welfare ,etc…

    [ that is, in an *anonymous* poll, i would assume the vast majority of non 'haredi' O jews would favor limitations of draft deferral, dramatic reductions in welfare, strong limits on kollel support, etc ]

  • dr. bill

    it is indeed sad that you can find no common ground with an modern orthodox educator. however, i am not surprised.

    A MO’s position on geirut probably considers declaring Rav Druckman posul as a non-starter. On issues of hashkafa, he may find declarations of the age of the universe as one of the ikkarim or Moses as secretary insufficiently nuanced. as for army service and stipends, people find the wonderful theory you allude to just that; the charedi system does not in their minds demonstrably produce either ethical Jews or scholars. Paying for the “protection” their learning provides is not in their minds worth the price.

    and you rightfully can look at any number of issues afflicting the MO community where scholarship and religious passion are largely absent.

    i tend to think the way to address the problem is for both liberal MO’s and charedim to talk not directly to each other but to frum dati and hesder communities who are better able to help bridge a sad divide.

  • cvmay

    WHY BOTHER DEBATING? Good question.
    In most debates, at conclusion there is the point winner and the loser. I would venture that DISCUSSING is a better descriptive verb for an open ended with honest questions/answers talk instead of using the word Debating.

  • Daniel Weltman

    >To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship.

    I hope the “secular” side of the debate pointed out as a response the Rambam’s codification that in times of מלחמת מצוה which includes defensive, protective military action (עזרת ישראל מיד כל צר שבא עליהם), there is no exemption. Indeed, thoughout the תנ”ךit was precisely the scholars and sages who led such battles. (I think the Rambam would agree with R’ Saadia Gaon. Rav Saadia responds to those who rely on bitachon in a reckless manner by saying that if one believes in the concept of bitachon, they are essentially promoting the concept that God runs this world. In that case, he states, it would be a profound folly to believe that this gives them license to ignore the laws of cause and effect, which are the practical way that God causes the world to run according to His plan. Faith in God leads to wanton disregard for careful, planned living only in the most foolish of minds. See chapter 12 of Sefer Hap’rishut Hash’lema, which forms a sub-composition in treatise ten of Emunot V’deot.)

    If the “secular” side of the debate was not aware of these sources, I hope the knowledgeable orthodox debaters brought this to their attention, and pointed out that, even though some (many? most?) charedim hold of a view with different support (support which I am not aware of), plenty of orthodox (and charedim too) do follow the Rambam and R Saadia, contributing spiritually and physically to the protection and preservation of the Jewish people in Israel.

  • lacosta

    >>i tend to think the way to address the problem is for both liberal MO’s and charedim to talk not directly to each other but to frum dati and hesder communities who are better able to help bridge a sad divide.

    —while i agree with the premise that ‘frum dati’ and hesderniks can side with the passion that haredim bring to the tora/avoda calculation, i am not sure that they would subscribe the tora bli medina outlook that most haredim are bound to, nor the appropriateness of taking from but not giving to , a State the are forbidden to support….

  • YM

    Fact: In Israel, it is possible for a man to study in Yeshiva full time and still raise a family, with Kollel Stipends, the Wife working, social welfare benefits, etc.
    Fact: Israel has one of the world’s healthiest economies, an amazing accomplishment for a country that constantly faces relentless opposition.
    Fact: In Israel, men studying full-time in Yeshiva are exempt from Army service.
    Fact: Israel’s army is rated as one of the strongest in the world. (rated 11th at globalfirepower.com)
    About Torah: Lengthy days are at its right; at its left are wealth and honor (Proverbs 3:16)

  • Shonnie

    Dear Rabbi,
    The secular view is that no army service for the Haredim is unequal?
    No, that’s the religious view too, my view, as an Orthodox Israeli Jew. Many Orthodox Jews do go to the army, so you CAN be Orthodox and serve.
    Haredim don’t go to the army if they are learning, fine. That would be okay with me (though not all Orthodox are OK with that). But many don’t want to be learning! They don’t go to the army because they are afraid the scene will be anti-religious there — and they are 100% right. They want to go to work, but Israeli law prohibits working if you haven’t done your army service. So some officially stay in yeshiva, though they are not learning — or certainly not learning productively – and that is very unfair, to them and the country.

  • YM

    “…the high-tech entrepreneur who learns 4 hours a day while doing his Milluim on the Gaza Border…a Chareidi Yungerman who has been in Kollel for 15 years.”

    It is astonishing to me that anyone would compare someone who learns 4 hours a day with someone in full-time Kollel. L’Havdil it is like comparing someone who races cars on the weekend to someone who races in NASCAR or the Indy 500 or Monaco Grand Prix. Not to mention that finding someone who works full time and HONESTLY learns four hours a day is extremely difficult.

  • Dr. E

    YM:

    That indeed is a creatively assembled list of facts that certainly supports your assertions of attribution.

    And I apologize for the mis-matched comparison. After all, the high-tech entrepreneur on Milluim may have learned full-time in Yeshiva for a period of time (when he could have chosen to do something else), did his Army Service, fit in his Sedarim while being married, getting education, and working. He is learning from his packet Kehati by flashlight on little sleep, while simultaneously guarding the border so that terrorists don’t cross and blow up the bus that the Kollel guy (whose path was predetermined in utero) has ridden in safety for the past 15 years. So, there really is no comparison.

  • joel rich

    L’Havdil it is like comparing someone who races cars on the weekend to someone who races in NASCAR or the Indy 500 or Monaco Grand Prix.
    ————————————————–
    agree, how can you compare someone who does it out of love to someone who does it as a profession?
    KT

  • Steve Brizel

    Dr E wrote:

    “The question is just whether that can be more effectively argued to the uninitiated by the high-tech entrepreneur who learns 4 hours a day while doing his Milluim on the Gaza Border–or by a Chareidi Yungerman who has been in Kollel for 15 years.”

    WADR, who says either approach is the only correct approach? Perhaps, we need more appreciation that either approach is an equally valid way in Avodas HaShem.

  • Dr. E

    Steve:

    My retort(s) to YM notwithstanding (in which I took issue with his comparison between the two hypothetical individuals simply along quantitative lines), I agree with you that both the Kollel model (for the right, select person, on a limited scale) and the high-tech entrepreneur have a place in Avodas Hashem. But, if you read my original comment in context, my point was the following. When engaging in dialogue with Jews far from our Mesorah, the more effective emissary of the virtues Torah-informed lifestyle would be someone who is very much a part of the same world– rather than someone who is encumbered with the quite indefensible baggage of economic dependence and not having participated in the critical national function of army service.

  • Shmuel

    The author’s title is the best part of this post –he’s better off not bothering to debate –i.e., not trying to convince a secular audience of the correctness of the charedi position on (non-) army service. He’ll never win this debate — there are thousands of Jews who are Shomrei Torah and who value Torah study properly and who don’t buy into it, how on earth could a secular audience buy into it. The only way to get a secular Jew to buy into this view is to put them through a full cycle in a charedi ba’al teshuva yeshiva.

    The time at the debate would be MUCH better spent on other issues –introducing them to Torah views on things that may be more palatable to them and sidestepping the army issue. In the name of exposing young secular Jews to some form of Jewish tradition, I would recommend the debater sidestep the army issue by pointing out that orthodox Jews are significantly over-represented in combat units (including many elite fighting units) and as officers in the army, and saying it’s an intra-orthodox debate how best to serve the country. This is disingenuous in promoting the charedi political point of view, but not in promoting Torah. It may come down to which of these two is more important to the debater.

  • dovid2

    “He is learning from his packet Kehati by flashlight on little sleep, while simultaneously guarding the border”

    This is “pie in the sky” North American folklore that has no basis in reality. Your tzadekel would be court marshaled, and for good reason. You wouldn’t want someone assigned to guard the border to learn mishnayot while on guard duty. I would rather have him sit and learn full time, or go fishing.

  • YM

    I believe the the great Gedolim of our nation believe that it is not possible to learn Torah in a serious way except in full-time learning. Learning a pocket Kehati with a flashlight is wonderful, but completely not comparable in any way to learning in Kollel. KT, I don’t know how you can say that the Men in Kollel don’t love learning Torah; I don’t think that someone can learn all day without loving it.

    It is obvious that many of the commenters here do not believe in Torah metaphysics. Too bad for them and for Klal Yisroel.

  • dovid2

    “At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux,….”

    Reb Yonathan, I understand your frustration. It seems to you as if you spoke to the wall. But that’s really not the case. While you might be fortunate to see the peros of your efforts immediately with those whose lives are “in a state of personal flux”, your resume, your looks, poise, and eloquence will not get lost to the rest of crowd. They may not internalize your message when they hear it, but on an intellectual level, they won’t dismiss it either. When Hashem, out of rachmanut, will bring their lives into “a state of personal flux”, they will remember that Haredi, Yale Law School graduate whose arguments may start now to make sense to them. I am also one of those with delayed reactions.

  • joel rich

    I don’t know how you can say that the Men in Kollel don’t love learning Torah; I don’t think that someone can learn all day without loving it.

    It is obvious that many of the commenters here do not believe in Torah metaphysics.

    ————————————–
    I didn’t say they don’t love it, I said they do it as a profession (perhaps I should have said the others do it solely out of love)

    Could you please expand on torah metaphysics, I’m not sure of your point

    Kol Tuv

  • Dr. E

    YM:

    You obviously have not seen some of the recent government audits on Yeshivos and Kollelim which yielded some rather disappointing results. The audits did not include bechinos for retention or acumen; they simply took attendance against the rosters that they had been given! While you may be excluding these no-shows in your worldview, it should really be seen as a red flag that the Yeshiva and Kollel endeavor might not be for as many people as you believe to the the case. They are self-selecting out, with no viable track. I would be more inclined to believe the North American folklore than the myth that 95% of the Chareidi population is either Kollel material or are taking the endeavor seriously.

    In terms of Torah metaphysics, I am indeed a believer, but I think I will revert to the conceptualizations which have existed throughout Jewish history, prior to 40 years ago. When you say “I believe the the great Gedolim of our nation believe that it is not possible to learn Torah in a serious way except in full-time learning”, that is a line that is not only of recent vintage, but largely rhetorical, without any basis in our traditional sources.